How Damascus can help US find its lost
keys By Sami Moubayed
One man saw another bending beneath a
streetlight, searching desperately for something.
"I am searching for my lost keys and could use
some help," he said. The second man started to
search, in vain. "Are you sure this is where you
lost them?" he asked. "No, it was on the other
side of the street." "Then why are you searching
here?" the second man asked in astonishment.
"Because this is where the light is. The other
side has no streetlight."
This is what is
happening to the US administration, searching for
solutions in Lebanon because
there seemingly is no light in Iraq - the real
place where they should be looking for their "lost
Yet even Lebanon is falling into
darkness. The situation in northern Lebanon, where
the army is combating al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic
insurgents called Fatah al-Islam, is worrying - to
say the least. Veteran investigative reporter
Seymour Hersh complicated matters even more by
appearing on CNN to say that Fatah al-Islam, a
Sunni militia, had actually been supported by the
Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad
al-Siniora, to serve as a counterbalance to
Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group, in case further
Sunni-Shi'ite hostilities erupted in Lebanon.
The idea was apparently the brainchild of
Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security
adviser, Vice President Dick Cheney and Saudi
National Security Adviser Bandar bin Sultan.
Within a short period, Hersh added, Fatah al-Islam
rebelled against its original patrons - the March
14 Coalition - in a manner similar to how Osama
bin Laden rebelled against both the Saudis and
Americans who had also supported him in the 1980s
to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
With a mini civil war raging between Fatah al-Islam
and the Lebanese Army in the Naher al-Bared
refugee camp, the situation in Beirut is
equally disturbing. The Hezbollah-led opposition is
still in the streets of the capital, calling for
early parliamentary elections and the downfall of
the Siniora cabinet. French-, Saudi- and US-backed
Siniora has refused to step down, although the
sit-ins against him are dragging into their
Making matters worse were
three bomb attacks in Lebanon within a four-day
period, sending strong messages to the government
and public alike. The bombs were intended to look
like the doing of Syria because, according to the
Saudi channel Al-Arabiyya, they went off in the
constituencies of Syria's main opponents.
Verdun is a Sunni stronghold of Saad
al-Hariri, the leader of the parliamentary
majority. Ashrafiyya is a Christian stronghold of
Samir Geagea, an anti-Syrian politician who heads
the Christian Lebanese Forces, and Aley is a Druze
stronghold of Walid Jumblatt.
are two sides to that argument. Aley is also a
historical stronghold for Emir Talal Arslan, who
is pro-Syria. Ashrafiyya is divided between Geagea
and the other Christian heavyweight Michel Aoun,
who is anti-Siniora. And Verdun can represent a
wide array of Sunni leaders who are pro-Syrian,
like former prime ministers Salim al-Hoss and
Najib Mikati (whose residence is near the site of
the Verdun explosion).
Opponents of Syria
would immediately disqualify this argument because
it comes from a Syrian. They claim that Damascus
makes trouble in Lebanon whenever there is serious
talk about setting up an international tribunal to
investigate the assassination of Lebanon's former
prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri. Many believe
Syria had a hand in this.
But it could
be that some outside party - non-Syrian - is
doing this, with three objectives. The first one is
to make the Syrians look bad. Second is to send
a message to Syria's allies who have
been demonstrating in downtown Beirut since
December, telling them to back off or beware. Third is
to pressure the Syrians to help deliver on Iraq.
(One could immediately think of Israel, which is
always looking for events to back its push for the
disarmament of Hezbollah.)
bombings took place just as the final touches are
being put to the Hariri tribunal, but also just as
the Syrians and Americans are establishing a
working relationship with regard to Iraq.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualim
met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at
Sharm al-Sheikh in Egypt recently and, according
to reports from both sides, the meeting was frank
and constructive. It went well - much to the
displeasure of those who want animosity to prevail
in Syrian-US relations.
The Syrian and US
agendas for Iraq are remarkably similar. Both want
to prevent any kind of federalism, be it sectarian
or administrative. Both want Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki to disarm the militias and amend the
de-Ba'athification laws as a goodwill gesture
towards Sunnis. Both are interested in a secular
Iraq, rather than an Iran-style theocracy. The
bombings in Lebanon - and all talk about Syrian
responsibility - makes it more difficult for the
Americans to continue such dialogue with Damascus.
One should not overlook that the prime
objective of the US is Iraq and it wants Syria to
take a variety of measures to help out. Syria is
saying that it is not a charity organization; it
does not do things for free. It wants a reward for
cooperation. President Bashar al-Assad told the
Americans before the Iraq war that they had no
business getting involved there because it would
unleash hell on them and the Middle East.
But if they went ahead and invaded -
something that Syria would never support out of
ideological conviction and geography - then the US
would eventually need Syrian help.
long time the US denied this, even after the Iraq
Study Group report was issued last year,
recommending cooperation with Syria to get results
in Iraq. Now the US has clearly stated: "From now
on, the only carrot given to the Syrians will be
'no stick'." The Syrians can, and have, shown more
cooperation on the Syrian-Iraqi border. This has
been acknowledged by a variety of US field
commanders in Iraq, but not by the administration
There are limits, however,
to what Syria can do in Iraq. Syria knows its
limits and so should the United States. Syria can
help calm things, but it cannot end the violence.
It is not the only player in Iraqi affairs.
Controlling a long border of 605 kilometers is
difficult for the Syrians. They couldn't do it
with 100% effectiveness when Saddam Hussein was
sending car bombs to Damascus in the 1980s. They
still cannot do it with 100% efficiency today.
Syrians can talk to Iraqi tribesmen and
former Ba'athists in the insurgency, convincing
them to change their tactics - but not abandon
them. They would need something in return, however,
and that is why Syria has been pushing for
amendments to the de-Ba'athification laws, as carrots
to Iraqi Ba'athists. They can even mediate with
certain Shi'ite groups (such as Muqtada
al-Sadr's), or through Iran.
But to do that,
Syria has to offer something in return to the
Iranians - something that Syria does not have and
only the Americans can deliver: the ending of
sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. By
extending support to Maliki's cabinet, the Syrians
give him legitimacy in the Iraqi Sunni street
because Iraqi Sunnis listen to Syria. They trust
the Syrians as a country and government alike that
is still seemingly committed to Arab nationalism
and vehemently opposed to the US presence in
Syria can also be a vital player
in the "war on terror" that is so dear to America.
They have had their own war with Islamists since
the 1960s and have been keeping files on Syrian
and non-Syrian Islamists, many of whom they handed
over to the US after the attacks on the US of
September 11, 2001.
The Islamists have
seduced America into the sands of the Middle East.
It's not the other way around, as many people
believe. Syria knows this territory well and can
be of great help to the Americans - if treated as
an ally in the "war on terror". Syria wants to be
seen as part of the solution to the Middle East,
rather than a part of the problem. That is where
the Americans should be looking: Damascus. It is
one part of the Middle East where the streetlights
still work and where America could find its "lost